Estate Executors’ Headaches: Selling Trophy Mounts

What most executors and heirs don’t know is that they could go to jail or be fined for selling grandpa’s prized mounted deer head, fish, bird, rug or other decorative wildlife trophy item. This mule deer mount is illegal to sell in states such as California.

If you were an estate executor and discovered a cache of illegal drugs in a decedent’s home, you’d know not to sell them, right? Of course; everyone knows that there are consequences for selling controlled substances. If you have even a modicum of environmental awareness, you also know that it’s illegal to improperly dispose of household hazardous waste and that personal property having a safety impact (firearms, for example) needs special care and handling.

What most executors and heirs don’t know is that they could go to jail or be fined for selling grandpa’s prized mounted deer head, fish, bird, rug or other decorative wildlife trophy item.

A case in point:

A California man inherited a mounted mule deer trophy from his grandfather. Gramps had “bagged” the deer while on a hunting trip to Colorado a few years earlier. Maybe grandpa thought he was being funny, because the heir in question was a vegetarian with no interest in such trophies. A college student in need of cash, the heir offered the trophy for sale on Craigslist. After playing “phone tag” for about a week with interested callers, an appointment was set and the trophy was sold.

Within minutes of the sale, there was a knock at the door. A California Fish & Wildlife agent—along with the man who had just purchased the trophy—issued a citation to the heir for illegally selling animal parts. The heir didn’t realize that according to the California Department of Fish & Wildlife code section 309, it was illegal to sell, trade or barter any trophy or mounting of an animal that can be found living in the wild in California. Despite the fact that the deer was taken in Colorado, mule deer are native to California and therefore come under the auspices of the act. If grandpa had killed a white-tail deer, there would have been no problem because white-tail deer are not native to California. If the trophy had been a black-bear rug, would that be OK? Nope; they’re native to California. A grizzly bear rug would be perfectly fine, though. But, don’t try to sell a grizzly bear rug in Alaska, because it’s illegal to do so there.

These whitetail deer antlers are naturally shed, and legal to own or sell.

It’s no wonder that executors sometimes get into trouble regarding the sale of trophy mounts: there is a maze of often contradictory federal and state laws that prescribe what can and can’t be sold or owned. The only safe rule of thumb is to assume that selling any animal part is illegal until you have had a discussion with your state Fish and Wildlife agency (or comparable department).

Some will ask, what’s the big deal about selling a wildlife trophy? Aren’t they personal property, just like a painting or a sculpture? After all, the thinking goes, they’re already dead. What’s the harm in selling them? Can’t I sell something I own? 

When it comes to wildlife trophies, ownership alone doesn’t give one the right to sell the item. In fact, in some states, unless an owner can prove that the trophy was harvested legally while in possession of a valid hunting license, it’s against the law to even own such a trophy, much less sell it.  

Laws have been established by international treaty and within the U.S. and the individual states to curb poaching and the sale of live exotic animals and animal parts. Poaching for the sale of animal parts and trophies is big business, amounting to billions of dollars per year in the U.S. A California Department of Fish and Wildlife warden is quoted on an NBC investigative report as saying “The sale of illegal species or native wildlife is second only to the drug trade in the U.S., so it is extremely profitable.”

Licensed hunters are not the problem, says California Fish and Wildlife Lt. John Nores; hunters are entitled to butcher their kills and mount their trophies. They just can’t sell them. The problem, says Nores, is people who buy, sell and harvest for profit only.

Animals living naturally in California—like this cougar—cannot be mounted or sold by unlicensed individuals in the state.

One such criminal is an Iowa man who was convicted of selling 38 illegally-killed white-tailed deer, elk and mule deer trophies in violation of state and federal wildlife laws. In his plea agreement, the poacher admitted to killing a total 45 trophy-quality animals, valued at $270,000, from locations in Iowa and Colorado. After killing the deer, he would retrieve only the antlers and heads, leaving the remainder of the animal behind. He would then sell the prized “racks,” many of which were scored and registered by the Boone and Crockett Club, a Montana-based non-profit club that maintains a registry of trophy animals. Having a trophy scored by Boone and Crockett raises the value of a trophy. The poacher was caught when he sold three trophy mounts to an undercover agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Under such circumstances, it’s not hard to justify laws that keep a tight rein on buying, selling, and owning animal parts. 

Estate Trophy Mounts

What’s to be done then with legally-acquired trophies when an heir or executor obtains one?

Are all animal parts illegal? No, they’re not. Deer shed their antlers naturally, and antlers can be picked up from the ground and sold mounted or crafted into jewelry or other items. Other legally acquired animal parts that are crafted into consumer items also legal. But protected species—elephants, for example—cannot have their parts made into anything. Hence, no more ivory piano keys.

These illegally obtained trophies were confiscated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Can trophy mounts be given away? Maybe. Check with your local Fish and Game warden. If you know the person you are giving them to, then it’s likely no one will ever find out. But if the individual then decides to sell them, you could be in hot water. 

Trophy mounts can’t be sold or consigned to antique dealers because they are not allowed to sell them. Neither are estate sale operators, unless the operator is also a licensed auctioneer. Last year a Kentucky antiques mall owner was raided by Kentucky Fish and Wildlife officers who confiscated 31 illegal trophy mounts. The mounts weren’t owned by the mall operator; they were in booths rented by other antique dealers. But, it was the mall owner who would process the sales, and it was he who was liable. The incident sent a scare throughout the antiques community, and many dealers are now refusing to take trophy mounts.

It’s not unusual to find people buying and selling wildlife parts on eBay or Craigslist without realizing that they can be charged with a misdemeanor and face charges of up to six months in jail and $1,000 fine per offense. If the animal involved is a protected species, felony charges and prison time are possible, depending on the state. 

Taxidermy items can be sold legally by licensed firms, as in this auction by Cherry Tree Auctions.

Of course, one can never tell which of the trophies offered on eBay are real and which are fraudulent. Hunting and fishing stores all over America offer faux deer-head trophies and many of them are so well-done that only an expert can tell which are real. Executors who decide to offer a trophy on eBay based on the auctions that they see there may be in for a surprise when the wardens come calling.

In spite of the risks, a Google search lists page after page of dealers who advertise that they buy and sell trophy mounts. Close inspection of these pages reveals that such transactions are done at the risk of the buyer, and buyers must be aware of their local laws. Even eBay hedges on the topic, encouraging buyers and sellers to contact their local authorities before listing or buying mounted wildlife trophies.

Executors and heirs do have options, though. Auctioneers and taxidermists are licensed to sell trophy mounts in most states, under some conditions. If the last sentence sounds like I’m hedging, that’s exactly what I’m doing. As I said, the laws surrounding this topic vary from state-to-state, and the only safe way to proceed is to get your state’s Fish and Wildlife Department to sign off on your disposal plan.

Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

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